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Three ways TriMet could close a budget gap without bus cuts

wrath waitingHere we go again: after cutting bus service 13 percent in three years, TriMet is warning of another round of cuts next summer. The budget hole, estimated at $12 to $17 million, comes from a legal victory by TriMet’s union, uncertain federal transportation funding and the weak economy.

So where do you find $15 million? Another frequency cut, even bigger than 2010’s? Cut fare inspections again? Clean the buses even less than once a year?

Nah, let’s talk about some more interesting ideas.

A 3 percent tax hike on hotel guests: $13 million. This idea comes from Chad, who goes by the handle Punkrawker4783 on his thoughtful blog and Twitter feed.

hotelIn 2009 there were 19,465 hotel rooms available in the Portland area (Vancouver excluded), on average the occupancy rate is 63%, or 12,263 rooms occupied each night. Adding 3% to the tax is $3 per $100 spent on the room. The average room rate is slightly less. This has potential of up to $13 million in annual revenues.

Presto, budget problem solved! In Multnomah County, the hotel-motel tax is currently 11.5 percent. (Across the Columbia, Vancouver’s rate is apparently 10.2 percent plus a $2 per night flat fee.) Knocking that up to 14.5 percent would be a real burden on travelers and probably reduce demand, so Chad’s back-of-the-envelope figures are too simple. But should Portland visitors, who enjoy huge benefits from our worker-funded transit system, help cover more of its costs? Sounds reasonable to me.

wesShut down WES commuter rail: $6.2 million. This idea comes from TriMet board member Steve Clark, who used it as an example this morning that “everything should be on the table.”

WES offers Cadillac transit service – free WiFi, cushy seats, a conductor on every train – at Ferrari prices: $6.2 million last year. That’s a lot for a train that serves about 600 815 people a day.

TriMet lost $18 per WES ride in fiscal year 2010, compared to $1.54 for a frequent-service bus ride and 55 cents for a Blue Line ride.

subsidy per ride

Ridership has gone up a bit since then, and I’m not sure what TriMet’s obligations are with regard to the federal government, which paid for much of WES’s construction costs. But the agency could eliminate almost half its budget gap if it could suspend this service. That’s why Clark brought it up. (Update! In the comments below, Tigard-based railroad expert Alex Craghead reports that TriMet cannot in fact stop operating WES without incurring millions in costs to the federal government. Clark, he suspects, did not know what he was talking about.)

parkingCharge $1 a day for access to TriMet’s most crowded park and rides: $800,000. According to TriMet, the agency offers free auto parking at six parking lots that typically fill up by 8:30 a.m. Charge a modest $1 per weekday ($20 per month, $240 per year) for the 3,000 parking spaces at these lots, and TriMet would gross $800,000 a year.

Would that drive down ridership? Mostly at peak hours, when TriMet wants riders the least. And it’d stop the rest of us from subsidizing TriMet’s giveaway of some of the area’s most valuable real estate, immediately surrounding its rail stations, to car owners.

Hey, it’s just an idea – TriMet asked for them. Let’s hear some more.

WES photo by Paul McGregor. Park and Ride photo by Jason McHuff. Hotel photo by Thomas Hawk. Creative Commons in all cases.

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